Why forests need fire (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

In June, I visited Shenandoah National Park to see portions of the 10,234 acres scorched by the wildfire in April. Already, it’s hard to tell there were 60 foot flames just a couple of months ago.

I wrote about the fire, as well as controversy over prescribed burning in Linville Gorge, for Blue Ridge Outdoors in a story that also featured a rare photo shot by me (the panorama from Brown Mountain Overlook).

Read the wildfire story at Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Getting along with bears in an increasingly crowded Appalachia (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

I’ve been fascinated by bears as long as I can remember. Most people are.

I remember run-ins with bears as my family camped in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the last couple of years I’ve observed more bears around my home in Floyd County.

For Blue Ridge Outdoors, I reported and wrote a longish story on our relationship with bears that’s broken down into three chapters:

Chapter 1: “When Bears Attack”
Chapter 2: “Bear Hunting”
Chapter 3: “Bears in the Backyard”

Read the Bear Truth at Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Extreme car camping with Mountain State Overland (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Much like its subject, Mountain State Overland, this story took a twisy, wandering path to publication, occasionally getting stuck in mud holes or having to find an alternate route.

The adventuring filmmakers of MSO are mapping their own version of Appalachia and the East Coast using GPS technology, up-fitted four-wheel-drive vehicles and digital video.

The group is part of the latest revival of overlanding—a trend that really never went away. Consider overlanding a high-tech, revved-up version of car camping, albeit one that allows access to areas that few get to see.

Read the story at Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Roanoke’s generational change (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

The May 2016 election marked the end of an era in Roanoke politics, and the start of something new.

I wrote about the election for Blue Ridge Outdoors within the context of Roanoke’s transformation over the last couple of decades, from a deteriorating industrial center into the next great outdoors city.

Read “Roanoke Reinvented” in Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Hokies fight for Flint (Virginia Tech Magazine)

The cover story for the spring 2016 issue of Virginia Tech Magazine, which I co-write with Jesse Tuel, focuses on Virginia Tech’s Flint water study group.

I feel privileged that I got the chance to meet and learn from people doing powerful things in the name of service to others. These faculty and students are changing the world in a very real way for the residents of Flint.

Read the story at Virginia Tech Magazine.

The mysterious death of an off-trail hiker in the Smokies (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Only a couple of times have I interviewed someone who broke down crying during our conversation. It’s a rare and amazing thing—a moment when someone places enough trust in me as a reporter to open display that raw emotion.

When it happens, I feel a special responsibility as a journalist. That moment occurred during the reporting of this story, over the phone with a source I’d never met in person. I hope I did that particular source —- and Jenny Bennett, my subject, whom I’d also never met — some measure of justice here in Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine.

Blue Ridge Trail Heroes (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Mirna Valerio, who started running at well over 300 pounds and now competes multiple ultramarathons each year.

Mike Wardian, an international ship broker who has become worldwide running celebrity.

Sophie Spiedel, a 50-something mom who recently completed her 10th Hellgate 100K.

Anita Walker Finkle, who ran right through cancer and out the other side.

Phil Phelan, who quit drinking to explore and document the hidden trails of Linville Gorge.

Read their stories in my feature on Trail Heroes for Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Appalachian Power’s big shift from coal (Roanoke Business)

In late October, Appalachian Power President Charles Patton made headlines in West Virginia when he told a summit of energy executives that coal just isn’t coming back, even if federal rules on power plants get rolled back.

Sure, that may be conventional wisdom in much of the country, but this speech came from the president and COO of Central Appalachia’s biggest electric utility, which has relied on coal as its dominant source of generation since its inception in 1911.

Two weeks later, as he walked into Appalachian Power’s offices in Roanoke, Virginia—his news-making remarks were delivered in the West Virginia community of the same name—he acknowledged that his comments were not what the room wanted to hear. After all, the economy in southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia was built around coal mining, and many there today still fervently hope that a coal comeback will fuel a new round of economic prosperity.

The problem for them is that, even as elected officials still continue to fight the so-called “war on coal” in state houses and on Capitol Hill, Appalachian Power already is taking action that will only cement the move away from coal when it comes to producing electricity. That’s not to say the utility won’t continue to rely on its existing fleet of coal-burning power plants, but, according to a document filed with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, but Appalachian Power has begun a substantial pivot away from the fossil fuel that defined its first century. The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) filed with the SCC on July 1 includes a dramatic decrease in its use of coal, as well as a corresponding increase in natural gas and renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Read more in “Old King Coal Dethroned,” my special report for Roanoke Business.

Appalachian coal’s apex predator convicted for conspiring to skirt mine safety laws (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

I wrote about former Massey CEO Don Blankenship again, this time for Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine.

Blankenship was charged in late 2014 with three felony counts worth a potential 30 years. In early December, a jury convicted him of one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to skirt mine regulations, which may result in a maximum year of prison time.

So why are environmentalists, labor advocates and others with a grudge against the coal baron celebrating the verdict?

Read “King Coal Dethroned: Mining Baron Don Blankenship Convicted” in January’s Blue Ridge Outdoors — now available online & in print – to find out.

Coal kingpin faces possible prison sentence after mine explosion (Grist)

I spent much of 2015 tracking the criminal trial of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who was indicted on criminal charges relating to West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

None of the three felony charges directly accused Blankenship of causing the disaster at Upper Big Branch mine, which happened when a spark from a longwall shearer ignited a fireball that hit accumulated coal dust, triggering a massive explosion.

Yet, the explosion overshadowed and informed every bit of the trial.

On Thursday, Blankenship was convicted of misdemeanor consipiracy to willfully violate mine safety regulations.

Read my story at Grist covering the trial and its outcome.